The Picture Ranch 3
I decided to overnight in San Diego. Ordinarily I'd have headed over to the US Grant Hotel on the client's dime, that's what I call feather-bedding, but I didn't feel like getting one over on Miss Grafenberg. So I parked the car a few blocks away from Lower Broadway and checked into the Army-Navy Y. The man behind the desk looked up from his comic book. He stood up and held out his left hand for a shake. His right sleeve was pinned across the chest of his dress shirt.
'Hell, if it ain't The Fisher King!'
I waved the hand-shake away. Top-Sergeant Bishop had been in a Shanghai brothel with me when I'd paid a beautiful woman to hold my hand. We were both on R and R prior to medevac, Bishop's arm had been lost to gangrene after a knife fight with a coolie. I had incapacitated the coolie, but got my own medical discharge in the process.
'Got a room for an old Jarhead?'
'Got hundreds. Most of 'um full.'
'I'll take one at the back. A red-brick view and a window above the dumpster will be fine.'
Bishop scratched at the shoulder seam of the pinned sleeve then laid his hand palm up next to the bell on the counter. I put the five-spot on the comic book lying open on the desk, covering an old man by a ruined castle depicted in colours that were garish and sombre at the same time. I shouldered my ditty-bag and ignored Bishop's whispered epithet.
The room was on the eighth floor. The view was sandstone, rather than brick, while the smell of the dumpsters combined with the stink of fried food from the canteen on the ground floor.
I lay on the cot and picked up the LA Times. Mr Mulvaney was on the social pages, but Mrs Mulvaney wasn’t. The blond on Mulvaney’s arm was billed as a close personal friend of the couple. I figured Mrs Mulvaney at least didn’t need too many friends like that one. I didn’t feel the Times fall on my face and I didn’t wake up until I bounced off the wall lamp with the help of 300 pounds of persuasion. Two meaty paws held my lapels - and me against the wall. Somewhere over a wide-shoulder that owed very little to any pad, I could just see a tall, skinny guy smoking a black-papered cigarette.
‘Mister Fisher? Yes, of course it is. Put him down, Randall.’
Randall let go of my lapels and I fell twelve inches to the floorboards, twisting an ankle on landing. It didn’t hurt as much as the time I broke my elbow, but it was close. The skinny guy held out a hand,
‘Mr Boethius, pleased to meet you, Mr Fisher.’
His grip was firm or maybe I was still a bit shaken up and mine wasn’t.
‘What do you want, Boethius?
Randall showed some initiative and cuffed me hard without Boethius asking him to.
‘I said “Mr Boethius”.’ He blew cigarette smoke in my face.
‘That’s only sexy when a woman does it,’ I said.
I fell hard on the cot after some more of Randall’s initiative. Boethius took the cigarette out of his mouth and nodded at Randall, who picked me up like I was a kewpie doll he’d won on the ring the bell stall at the fair. He got me in what they call a bear hug, though I never met anyone alive who’d been hugged by a grizzly. Boethius put the end of his coffin nail on the palm of my hand,
‘We’d like you to stop looking.’
He lifted the glowing tip,
‘I’m asking nicely.’
The cigarette was close enough for me to feel the heat on my eyeball. I stayed just cool enough not to nod my head while I screamed,
’Ok,ok,ok. Fer Chris’sakes!’
‘Ah, indeed. I often find people tend to see things our way when the alternative is not seeing at all.’
There was a smell of burning flesh. Randall let go and I fell to the floor before I realised his boss had stubbed out his Russian cigarette on my cheek. Boethius turned at the door,
‘Watch your step, Mr Fisher. I hope I don’t see you around.’
He looked like the guy from those scary movies made out at the Universal lot, until he waved the way Shirley Temple would have if she was a forty-year-old undertaker from Des Moines.
I looked out the window. A hobo was knee deep in the waste, lighting matches so he could find the best-of-line items in the dark. My wristwatch told me it was after midnight. So as it was Randall-proof as well as shock-proof that meant I had slept another three hours since Boethius had improved my complexion. Maybe I fainted, so what? I needed a drink. On the floor in the doorway was an empty matchbook, Boethius had probably lit up another on his way out. The matchbook was from a place called The Red Menace. It had a picture of a torch singer on the front. She looked too hot to be hiding matches in. I wondered if she was real or just the wishful thinking of the joint’s owner. The phone number on it had a Los Angeles code. There wasn’t going to be any drink. I put the match-book in my pocket, it might have been a clue, or maybe I just liked the picture.
Down in the lobby, Bishop was asleep, the comic book still open on the desk in front of him. I kicked his chair out from under, he should have kept it on four legs – or stayed awake.
‘You let those guys in?’
He looked up from the floor, ‘What guys?’
I stood on the back of his only hand.
‘Ahhhh! Jeez, come on, Fisher. They said they wuz cops.’
‘And were they?’
‘I seen a buzzer.’
‘Which one had the badge?’
‘His name was Randall.’
‘What about the other guy?’
‘Him that looked creepy? He didn’t say nuthin’.’
‘Yeah well, thanks a bunch, Bishop. Semper Fi.´
I ground my heel into his hand and headed out into the night.
San D wasn’t my town any more than LA was. I didn’t know anyone here, but I knew enough to drop a dime on a fictitious crime and ask for Detective Randall, so I phoned from a booth on the corner of 5th Avenue and G Street.
‘City Hall, how may I direct your call?’
‘Gimme the Police Department.’
‘Putting you through.’
‘Police Department, how may I direct your call?’
‘I wanna talk ta Detective Randall, ‘bout a kidnap.’
‘Putting you through.’
‘I wanna talk wit’ Randall.’
‘Randall? Who the hell is Randall? We got a Randolph, that do ya?’
I hung up, and I waited some more.
‘Randall’ came out of the doors of City Hall ten minutes later. It was a big building. There weren’t many lights in the windows, but I guessed they all belonged to the Police Department. You can’t tail anyone at one in the morning, maybe not even in New York. Not enough people on the streets, at least not around City Hall. Down by the docks, perhaps, but you’ve got to know the town. Like I said, SD wasn’t my town, but I followed him. He knew I was following him and I knew he knew. But it didn’t matter, anyhoo. The Zephyr that picked him up wasn’t any squad car, no police department in the US of A buys Lincolns. I guessed ‘Randall’ had been picked up by Mr Boethus. Could be he’d assume I hadn’t seen things his way after all, so I walked back to the Y, started up the Studebaker and headed back to Encino to wait until Friday.
The Studebaker limped back to Encino about five hours later. I left my friend’s car two blocks away from my office. The keys were under the driver’s seat. Maybe he’d get lucky and someone would boost it. The sun was up and I flipped the newsboy a coin in exchange for an up-to-date LA Times. The office is a walk-up in a 3-storey building where the ground floor has been everything from a florist’s to a photographer’s studio. A guy named Zbiegniew worked out of it then. He didn’t do weddings. He sold a lot of postcards that he kept under the counter. Some of the girls were pretty, some of them weren’t. I made sure they were all over 18. Zbiegniew still managed to take photographs, even with the cast on his arm. It was too early for the Polish photographer to be open for business.
I went up the stairs. When I got to the third floor, what breath I had was taken away by the state of the door to my office. The glass had been smashed. No glass cutters and rubber suction cups, just a ball-peen hammer that still lay on the floor in front of the open door. Miss Lipowitz lived across the landing. She had an ear-trumpet and a phonograph which only played shellacs of songs from before the age of radio, so I didn’t bother knocking. Inside the office, I couldn’t tell if anything was missing, except the floor. It might have been under the files and their contents, but I couldn’t say for sure.
I figured it didn’t matter if I left footprints on two-year-old infidelity case notes as long as I avoided the negatives and the photographs. Besides, I still wanted that drink. I went through to the washroom, stood on the pedestal, reached into the cistern and grasped the neck of the bottle. I sat down on the john and took a slug of Navy Rum. I supposed the whiskey I kept for show was somewhere amongst the paperwork on the office floor. When the bottle was finished, I passed out and if I hadn't woken up again it would’ve been just fine with me.